Maxims, Mottos and Memories: An Interview with John Mariani
By Marguerite Thomas
John F. Mariani, Jr. is proprietor of the family owned Banfi Vintners of Old Brookville, NY, and its Italian subsidiary, Castello Banfi of Montalcino, Italy.
Banfi Vintners, wholly American-owned and founded in New York in 1919, today ranks among the world's most prestigious wine houses. In 1964 John and his younger brother Harry assumed control of the company (John was appointed chairman and chief executive officer, while Harry, directing day-to-day administrative, sales and marketing activities, became Banfi's president and chief operating officer). Today, they both remain active as counsel to the third generation of family management: John's daughter Cristina and Harry's son James.
Castello Banfi has garnered numerous medals and awards, including an unprecedented four-time presentation of VinItaly's Gran Premio Cup, Italy's highest honor. In the latest competition, some 100 international wine experts at the annual wine fair in Verona awarded more medals and honors to Castello Banfi wines than to those of any other Italian vintner, winning for the firm the competition's coveted "Premio Speciale" prize. Signature wines of the Castello Banfi estate, available in 50 countries around the world, include the single-vineyard reserve Poggio al'Oro and unfiltered cru Poggio alle Mura Brunellos, as well as three proprietary cuvées, ExcelsuS, SummuS and Cum Laude. Other single-vineyard bottlings include Tavernelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Colvecchio Syrah and San Angelo Pinot Grigio.
Encouraged by their success in business, the Mariani brothers established the Banfi Foundation, and from its earnings John created and endowed the Chair of Food & Beverage Management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, while Harry directed that funding be appropriated for a Chair of Economics dedicated to the free enterprise system at Colgate University. Banfi grants and scholarships to promote hospitality-oriented education also have been awarded to the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales University, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Penn State and the Hotel School in Shannon, Ireland.
M.T.: You and your brother Harry have worked together virtually all your adult lives. If you ever had issues of sibling rivalry you've clearly overcome them. What is it about your character that has enabled you to sustain a lifelong business partnership?
J.M.: Three words: education, dedication and discipline. It wasn't always easy!
What outside influences helped shape your approach to business and to life?
From my experiences in sports, parochial school, summer camps and military service, I learned the benefits of hard work and of being part of a team. I also learned to embrace the axiom: "you will accomplish more if you don't mind who gets credit."
In what way was your father an influence on you?
My father instilled in us a spirit of sharing, trust and integrity. We loved him dearly. As his first son, my promise to him was that I would take care of my mother, sister, and brother.
Tell us a little about your first years in the wine business.
My sister and brother married right after graduating from college, and devoted themselves first to their families. I worked through college with my father, and when I left compulsory military service after college, I joined him again. For the next fourteen years I buried myself in work. I married when I was 36--my father had always said: "Build a solid nest before you start to fill it." My own motto from those days became: "Work smart, work hard."
How did you happen, early on in your career, to begin representing California wine?
I'd lived in Germany for two years, where I had the opportunity to get to know the wines from the Rheingau, the Mosel, Saar & Ruwer, and the rest of Germany's wine regions. I knew France's wines from the Côte d'Or, the Rhône, Champagne, and Bordeaux. I was very familiar with wine from most Italian regions, as well as well as Spain's Riojas and Valdepenas. What I was not enamored with were the vegetal red and white wines that were typical of the West Coast of the United States at that time (this was in pre-Robert Mondavi days). One exception: the varietal wines from Buena Vista Vineyards in Sonoma, which were the closest in taste to the vitis vinifera of Europe. I met Buena Vista's owner Frank Bartholomew around 1958, and became his East Coast distributor. That rounded out our portfolio international wines.
I assume that the Italian selections were your portfolio's forte--is that right?
Our goal was to be fine wine importers. As we were familiar with the fine French and German wines, we knew that the Italian wines must be equal in quality. Our headliner for our pioneering selection of Italian regional wines was: "From the Alps to Sicily, the Fine Wines of Italy." Banfi became the first to introduce into the USA the wines of Gattinara, vintage Barolo, Ghemme, Inferno, Sassella, plus the varietal wines of Trentino, Cinque Terre, Brunello di Montalcino, Lacrima Christi, Capri, Pugliese, and Abruzzi.
You traveled a lot to France as well as Italy. That must have been an exciting tour of duty too.
In Bordeaux, during several annual trips to purchase classified chateaux in tonneau [barrel], I made the acquaintance of countless interesting people. In Burgundy, Lameloise in Chagny--now a three star restaurant, I think*--was my comfortable base for tasting and buying Nuits-St.Georges, Beaune, Chambertin, and it is where Max Brenot's Bâtard-Montrachet became the hallmark for me of the finest white wine in the world. Baroness Viviane LeRoy of Chateau Fortia (Chateauneuf du Pape) selected us as their US agency. From her and her brother, I learned much about the trials and tribulations of their father Baron LeRoy, the person universally recognized as the force behind the formation of France's Appellation Controllée [in 1923 Chateauneuf-du-Pape became the first Appellation in France, thanks, largely, to the efforts of Baron LeRoy].
*Le Figaro announced on Jan. 18 that the Guide Michelin has restored Lameloise's third star, which it had lost a few years ago.
In 1967, Banfi scored a major coup with the introduction of Lambrusco--a fruity, frothy wine from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region--to the US market, under the label Riunite. The first cautious shipment was of only 100 bottles, but the wine was almost instantly successful, and within a few years became the top selling Italian wine in the US. Was Riunite's success just dumb luck, or were you convinced beforehand that this style of wine would have broad appeal here?
Being familiar with European wines, and gaining increasing knowledge of the human palate, I reasoned that wine in general would become popular in the Americas if its taste was appealing. Riunite is a young and fresh quality wine, which I thought would have consumer appeal.
Americans were not very familiar with wine in those days.
That's right. Europeans, who enjoyed wine as food, spent approximately 30 percent of their disposable income on food and wine. Americans spend ten percent. They were not raised with wine, and were basically uneducated in wine. They knew little of its health benefits, and had little way of learning about it since government regulations forbade mention of the benefits of wine on the health and life of consumers.
Describe the beginnings of Riunite.
This is how Riunite Lambrusco amabile was born. For several years we represented the wines of Jean Barbet of Ets Loron, producer of Loron and Louis Jadot Beaujolais and Maconnaise wines. In off years I found them unappealing and they could be a headache in the bottle sometimes too. But in exceptional years it was superb, a model wine. With its qualities in mind, I began studying the Lancellotta grape of Reggio-Emilia, and working with Senator Walter Sacchetti, who was the managing director of Cantine Cooperative Riunite there. The result was that we created a special cuvée, in which we arrested fermentation and stabilized the wine via natural CO2 from the fermentation (the Charmat technique). We were able to maintain low sulfite levels. We chose Riunite in the first place because it was one of Italy's more reputable wine cooperatives. It controlled thousands of acres of vineyards, with appropriate soils and a temperate climate. From this amicable partnership came a healthful wine, a wine that was as organic as possible, with a minimum use of chemical preservatives and an appealing taste from natural residual grape fructose (there was no chaptalization).
You've played a very public role on the lecture circuit and in wine education. Did you pursue these activities because as a good way to market wine?
Yes. Look, the fine wine market was minute. Most wine consumption was fragmented into different ethnic groups. Italian style jug wines dominated the market in places like New York, Boston, California. Kosher wines were big in Brooklyn and various other pockets of the country. French and German wines appealed to sophisticated consumers. The popularity of American "Chablis," "Burgundy" and "Chianti" actually compromised the real thing. American consumers needed educating. My colleagues and the trade firmly believed that consumption would increase if consumers became comfortable with wine.
What were some of the things you did in the line of consumer education?
I lectured at the Overseas Press Club, and lectured students in Harold Grossman's Beverage Program. I gave talks at the Physicians' Wine Appreciation Society, and Alex Bespaloff and Peter Sichel invited me to speak on Italian wines at the New York Wine and Food Society.
You also taught at Cornell.
I gave talks to both student and adult classes. I'd get in my 1964 Corvair at 5 o'clock in the morning in New York City, and drive up to Ithaca to give lectures to the morning and afternoon classes. I'd stay to conduct the evening class, then drive back to New York the same day. It was a long trip on old roads in those days, but I was unmarried and fulfilling a promise. Banfi then went on to endow the first chair for wine education, for Professor Vance Christian, at Cornell Hotel School.
Do you feel that this kind of contribution has had long reaching effects?
I've passed the baton on to beloved colleagues who have taken on worthy educational roles, and have gone on to become presidents of organizations such as the Society of Wine Educators. They conduct wine educational courses throughout the world. And Banfi's scholarship trips to Italy have been awarded to more than one hundred students and professors from leading culinary and hotel schools.
In the late 1970's you were able to achieve what you'd long called your "impossible dream," founding the Castello Banfi vineyard winery in Tuscany. Was this desire primarily motivated by good business sense? Or were you inspired more by sentiment (the wish to return to your family's Italian roots)?
It was both.
Why Montalcino rather than some other part of Italy?
I believed that with the calciferous Mediterranean soils and unique micro-climate in Montalcino, noble grapes could consistently produce healthy fruit for fine wines, albeit wines with their own character. Sangioveses's potential was unfulfilled there. We traced the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot back to ancient times, but few or none had been cultivated in recent years in Tuscany (Sassicai came later).
What were the wines of Montalcino like at that time?
The wines I tasted in 1955 and the 1960s, were medieval! Fermentation took place in cement cisterns, and burnt sulfur sticks were used to disinfect. These were hard, tannic wines that were the result of spent cooperage, poor vineyard disciplines, errant clones, and so on. After collecting knowledge of the cellars and vineyard practices of leading chateaux and estates, and evaluating research from the Trento Instituto, we set out to create a renaissance in Italian wines. And why not? No one else was willing to step forward, while we had in place a devoted team plus the earned capital to fulfill a dream. We were breaking the mold to create a finer wine world.
Did you have any reason to solicit advice from Italian or European vintners?
Absolutely. Our team of 5 to 6 top Italian enologists and agronomists was advised by Professor Helmut Becker (from Geisenheim), as well as Professors Emile Peynaud and Pascal Ribereau-Gayon (from the University of Bordeaux). Among the famous people who willingly assisted us, they too sensed the winds of change. Our timing was just right. We became an unofficial wine experimental estate unconfined by university limitations. The wine industry was tradition bound, so it was not always easy. I'd say that, overall, we succeeded by paying attention to detail, and thinking first of the consumer. We reasoned that it was best to construct anew, instead of inheriting or copying past mistakes.
It isn't difficult to imagine that local grape growers and winemakers might have resented what they probably viewed at the rich Americans sweeping in and starting to plant vines. How are neighborly relations today?
Excellent. We innovated, we lowered costs, and enabled others to follow. Our improvements were studied by the local industry and taken to heart. All wines in the region have improved dramatically.
Our two decades of clonal research was shared with all (from 650 clones, we've gone down to 12-15). We introduced Brunello to the USA, Asia, and Europe.
When we reincarnated Poggio alle Mura as Castello Banfi, there were possibly 7 or 9 vintners of any significance in Montalcino--today, there are probably more than 170.
Banfi is the largest employer in Montalcino with social projects underway. We lifted the noose of servitude in bondage, we instituted the first profit-sharing, and propelled Montalcino from the poorest to the wealthiest hilltop town of Tuscany.
I don't think anyone would argue that before Banfi arrived, Brunello di Montalcino wasn't on anyone's radar.
Being voted four times the world's Number One Vineyard Estate by more than ninety professional judges from blind tastings conducted at VinItaly, and for eleven consecutive years as Italy's Premier Vineyard Estate, brought attention to Montalcino. With more forward fruit and elegance in our wine, vintners in our locale were ready to jump aboard. Frescobaldi, Antinori, Gaja, et al, came and emulated.
Today, Banfi's Italian estate has grown beyond the extensive vineyards and state-of-the-art winery to an enormous complex that includes a sizeable enoteca (tasting room and gift shop), a museum of historic glassware, olive orchards, a balsamic vinegar production, and two restaurants, one of which has been awarded a coveted Michelin star. The estate's showpiece is a medieval fortress now known as Castello Banfi, meticulously restored as a hospitality center. Your latest project has been to develop a unique luxury hotel on the property named Il Borgo. Can you briefly describe it, and tell us why you wanted to do this?
I prize the expression "Look Outside the Box." Castello Banfi is a leader, combining historical practice with pioneering innovation. And now again, its legacy will be educational. We saw a need for luxury accommodations to create a destination for people to relax, study, explore the estate and glimpse into the future of wine. (Past visitors include Rosemount, Hardys, R. Mondavi, a 7 man team from Gallo, Rutherford Hill, Frank Woods [Clos du Bois], Michel Roland, Teams of Oenologists from France / Bordeaux, Texas, Chile, etc. etc. etc.)
We hear a lot these days about cloning grapevines, but I sometimes wonder if you haven't found a way to clone yourself! I can think of no other explanation for some of the things you've done. For example, at about the time you were developing Castello Banfi, you acquired a 60-room Elizabethan manor house in Old Brookville, Long Island, and converted it into Banfi's world headquarters. And oh yes, you also planted a 127-acre Chardonnay vineyard on the estate. Okay, I realize that you probably didn't personally go out and select all the period furnishings and objets d'art, but how do you manage to keep a personal hand in so many different endeavors?
Easy: spot talent and work with it! I learned from the late New York-based interior designer Mark Hampton about the needs and eccentricities of 60 room mansions, a 1200 year old castello, designing & building my house in Lattingtown, NY, and creating Jumby Bay, a 330 acre island luxury resort off northern Antigua that was sold to members in the mid-1990s. From Jumby Bay, we gained valuable experience for Il Borgo at Castello Banfi. We are now working at Castello Banfi with pre-eminent designers such as Federico Forquet (he's done all the Agnelli houses, and also Oscar de la Renta's).
Approximately a decade after entering into these projects you and your brother made another move that was widely viewed as particularly astute: you purchased a rival firm, Excelsior Wine & Spirits, thus acquiring the agency for Chile's leading wine export, Concha y Toro. This was at a time when American consumers were first discovering the value of Chilean wine. By 2000, Concha y Toro became the top selling imported wine in the U.S., the position Riunite had held for over 24 years. (Currently ranked as the #2 and #3 imported wines in the US, both are the best selling wines from their respective countries of origin). How did you know this was exactly the right time to expand, and how did you know Concha Y Toro would prove to be a success?
Age imparts wisdom. We acquired Excelsior Wine & Spirits through a personal friendship with proprietor Frank Feinberg (former owner of Monsieur Henri Wines who sold to Pepsi/Stoli Vodka). Both Riunite and Conch Y Toro had exceptional leadership, and were enjoyable to work with.
What qualities make them exceptional leaders?
They are creative, cooperative, and attentive. They are self starters and intelligent.
You said at the outset, when we first started talking, that being a team player was one of the most important early lessons you learned early on. If I were to look for the one consistent thread that has run through our discussion, that's probably what it would be.
Riunite has sold more than 150 million cases world-wide and remains popular. Conch Y Toro grew from 82,000 cases per annum to probably 4+ million in USA on quality and value. Castello Banfi wines are on allocation in 85+ countries. What's behind all of this? Proficient teamwork tuned to the consumer. But don't forget the other lesson I learned early on: hard work. The harder one works, the luckier he becomes.
I'm sure rain has fallen on some of your days, but overall you seem to have had a life filled with extraordinary successes. You've had a tremendous impact on an industry you clearly love, and you've been much honored by your peers. But above and beyond all the accolades and awards, it's not hard to imagine that one of the greatest delights of your life has been seeing your daughter Cristina come into the family business.
I am very proud of Cristina and of my nephew, James. I am overjoyed by their logic, devotion and integrity. This is my heaven--seeing my best dreams come true. I give praise too to Harry, for his support, understanding and invaluable contributions. And also to my wife, Pamela, for challenging and encouraging me and our team to be the best.
Can you glance into the metaphorical crystal ball and give us a couple of thoughts about what you see ahead for Banfi, and for the wine world in general?
--I see Team Banfi, still dedicated to a finer wine world. It would be a consumer blessing, if more of the industry followed.
--Pure and Natural wines will be accepted as one of nature's most wholesome foods.
--U.S. wine consumption could escalate to 15 gallons or more per capita.
--Drinking age for wine should be lowered.
--Wine & Spirit appreciation should be taught in the home.
--Educate instead of legislate may become a viable concept.
--Advanced technology replacing chemistry: Nitrogen bottling, electro dialysis, gravity feed, etc.
Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Working with talented, communicative colleagues is a wonderfully rewarding life. I'm grateful for the legacy from my father to my brother and me, which I hope we are talented enough to pass onto future generations. And finally, I'd like to mention two deeply satisfying awards that were recently presented to Castello Banfi. The first was the International Recognition for Exceptional Environmental, Ethical and Social Responsibility, and the second was recognition as International Leader in Customer Satisfaction.